Irish universities and salary top-ups

Topping up the salaries of senior executives is not in vogue right now, as is well known. In the Celtic Tiger years in Ireland, however, it was not unusual, and universities were not particularly exceptions. According to figures now released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Ireland’s seven universities spent a total of €7.2 million on unauthorised top-ups between 2005 and 2011, and the Authority has now declared that it is withholding half of this amount, albeit on a phased basis, from the institutional grants until that sum has been repaid. The other half will have to be spent by the universities on student services.

The university most affected by this will be University College Dublin, which will have €1.6 million withheld; the one least affected is my former university, Dublin City University, with €27,000 being withheld (and in this case, as it covers a period during which I was President, I might add that the sum in question had been authorised by the HEA, but never mind).

I might say right away that I am totally opposed to salary top-ups; these fail all kinds of tests, including obvious transparency and fairness tests. I did not allow any such payments in DCU (the small top-up mentioned above was decided and authorised before my time as President). However, one might still question what is being done by the HEA. First, I am of the view that payments and salaries in universities should be controlled by their governing bodies, not by the government. Secondly, even if top-ups are wrong (as I think they are), withholding a sum of money as ‘punishment’ is an entirely counter-productive response. The first time, when the top-ups were paid, the money in question was in essence removed from the funds available to resource teaching and student support; now the HEA is removing these sums (or half of them) for a second time from students by withholding them from institutional grants; that makes no sense to me.

As the government itself believes, top-up payments are no longer made anywhere in the Irish university system. That is really a good bit of progress. Punishing current students for excessive payments made to senior staff in the past is much more doubtful. What the story does tell us, however, is that universities need to be open and transparent in how they pay staff, and senior staff in particular.

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8 Comments on “Irish universities and salary top-ups”

  1. I can see several rational grounds for fining those who have overpaid senior staff. First, it sends a very visible public signal about this practice, and conversely not asking for the money back would send a very different message. Second, it puts significant moral pressure on those who benefited to pay the money back; and it is not the HEA or State’s fault if they fail to do so.

  2. V.H Says:

    Could they have deducted it from the pension payments.

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    Lost in the haste to condemn all top-ups is the longstanding practice of giving a small extra payment to staff member who sacrifice 3 or more years of their career in order to become Head of School/Department. Time was that those who took on this job got something like €8,000-10,000 extra. These payments, which long predate Hugh Brady and are common at universities in other jurisdictions were, typically, also done away with along with the practice of doling out suitcases full of money to various friends on the Senior Management Team. What is the predictable result? The job of Head of School in some Schools has become almost impossible to fill. But this is typical Ireland: draconian, blanket solutions (the ECF; the ban on all extra payments) to very specific problems. And, of course, nobody dares to stick their neck out and say “uh, not all bonuses are created equal.”

  4. Dan Says:

    The extra payments (more modest than above, I believe) to Heads of School (for taking on a signicantly greater amount of thankless admin on top of their teaching and research responsibilities) were done away with some time before bonuses to Senior Management were…

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